Trigger-Happy Pedagogy?


“Roy Rogers and Trigger” by born1945 – Flickr. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Post by Kristin J. Jacobson, IFD Fellow and Associate Professor of American Literature, Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies, and American Studies

When does pedagogy become suspicious?

Good pedagogy might always be suspicious—or at least aim to be: we add the term critical to pedagogy to emphasize its questioning characteristics. Bad pedagogy, likewise, is equally suspicious by its faulty, defective, substandard nature. The trigger warning debate[1] playing out in higher education and in the popular press is at its core a debate about the properties of good and bad pedagogy.

Well, duh. It’s also a debate about what constitutes (legitimate) trauma, neoliberalism’s encroachment in higher education, and today’s college students’ temperament,[2] raising such questions as:

  • Should faculty include any type of content warning—whether it is called a “trigger warning” or not? Why or why not?
  • Where should the line be drawn? What content falls or does not fall under this rubric? Should the student, professor, therapist, or college define what is considered offensive or potentially traumatic content?
  • What kind of policies about student responsibility for content should be enforced? Should students be required to participate in a class or a series of classes that may force an individual to relive a traumatic experience? Should students be required to complete readings/assignments that include potential triggers?
  • Do trigger warnings limit or enhance discussion/the range of assigned content appropriate for a college-level course? How is discussion/content limited? Enhanced?
  • How do such warnings encourage weakness or a “fragility of mind” among students? How do they promote strength and self-empowerment?
  • Why has this academic debate sparked a broad range of commentary from both inside and outside the academy? What nerve does the topic hit? What role does the trivializing of trigger warnings and/or humor about trigger warnings play in the debate? Example: “Triggers,” by Paul Rudnick, 25 August 2014, The New Yorker:

Trigger warning supporters cite the rationale that survivors should not be surprised by potentially trauma-inducing content in a controlled educational environment. Detractors, such as the American Association of University Professors, see trigger warnings as a dangerously “infantilizing and anti-intellectual” encroachment on academic freedom.

Trigger warnings are not simply a “seat belt” law for education, where requiring such warnings makes education safer for everyone who enters the classroom.


“A mask, painted by a Marine who attends art therapy to relieve post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, is displayed at an art expo May 3. The expo provided a way to raise awareness about PTSD and the benefits of art therapy. During therapy sessions, participants use a variety of art supplies, including paints, clay, markers, charcoal and images for collages, to express their thoughts, feelings and memories.” (Official U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Andrew Johnston) . “USMC-120503-M-9426J-001” by Cpl. Andrew Johnston This Image was released by the United States Marine Corps with the ID 120503-M-9426J-001. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

After all, a car in the hands of a reckless, careless driver can quickly remove any pretense of security.

Critical rather than reckless pedagogy suggests that no educator should simply be judged by the inclusion or absence of such warnings: the decision to include (or not) a trigger warning is best made by the individual faculty member—teaching effectiveness may be increased or decreased by a range of factors. Every time we educators get behind the wheel of the classroom we must drive for the conditions of that particular term, class and day.

We would do well to remember that there are a range of critical pedagogies required to deal with the reality that

“As many as 50 percent of students have some trauma history, and even small doses of representations of trauma can affect people”

and with the fact that

“There’s no research yet on trigger warnings in the psychological literature, so psychologists don’t know what effect they might have” (Smith “Warning” 58).

Despite all the debate, we remain in largely unmapped territory. Accounts from former and current students and former and current educators

"Seatbelt" by PMcM, Liftarn - Image:Seatbelt.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Seatbelt” by PMcM, Liftarn – Image:Seatbelt.png. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –

chart wildly different experiences and expectations.

My own critical pedagogy incorporates a “nota bene” in some but not all of the courses I teach (a recent version of this syllabus note is below as well as an example from Associate Professor of Psychology, Christine Ferri). The debate has helped me understand more clearly how my own standpoint as a white, cisgender female, feminist academic at a public liberal arts college situates me within the debate and my desire to produce a trustworthy, but not necessarily comfortable classroom.

Most of the time I find some type of note helps me begin the work of producing such a classroom, one freed to recognize the power of the literature and topics we engage and yet not excuse us from wrestling with our own too easy or less than secure responses. None of us can afford to be distracted drivers of our education.

"TXDOT R20-3". Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“TXDOT R20-3”. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Rather than being trigger happy, I strive for a justified pedagogy that shoots true.


Sample Trigger Warnings:

Sample 1:

NOTA BENE: readings covered in this course may be considered challenging due to topics that some may find offensive and/or traumatizing. Our classroom provides an open space for the critical and civil exchange of ideas. The instructor always tries to forewarn students about potentially disturbing subjects and requests all students aim to create an atmosphere of mutual respect and sensitivity.

Sample 2: (from Associate Professor of Psychology, Christine Ferri)

Some of the material we will cover in this class is quite graphic in its portrayal of suicide, suicidal thoughts, hopelessness, sexual behavior and the harmful behaviors associated with depression, schizophrenia and substance abuse. Please consider whether detailed descriptions and in-depth discussion of any of these topics will be difficult for you because you, a friend or a family member suffers from these disorders. For most people with psychological disorders, reading these books functions as an affirmation that helps you feel understood. However, for others, it may trigger problem behaviors. I just ask that you give this some thought. If you expect that this will be particularly difficult for you, I will give you priority registration for the class in a future semester. If the material has a psychological impact on you that you did not expect, you are always invited to talk to me or someone at the College Counseling Center (Location, XXX/XXX-XXXX.)

Selected Bibliography

American Association of University Professors. “On Trigger Warnings.” N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2014.

Chemaly, Soraya. “What’s Really Important About ‘Trigger Warnings.’” Huffington Post. N.p., 20 May 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

“Common Trigger Warnings.” N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

Davis, Jade E. “What I Learned About ‘Trigger Warnings’ From Teaching College Students.” TPM. N.p., 23 May 2014. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.

“Essay by Faculty Members about Why They Will Not Use Trigger Warnings.” @insidehighered. 29 May 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

Flaherty, Colleen. “Oberlin Backs down on ‘Trigger Warnings’ for Professors Who Teach Sensitive Material @insidehighered.” 14 April 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

“‘Freedom from Speech’: Speech Issues on College Campus.” Radio Times. WHYY, Television.

Halberstam, Jack. “You Are Triggering Me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma.” Bully Bloggers. 5 July 2014. Web. 19 Jan. 2015.

Jarvie, Jenny. “Trigger Happy.” The New Republic 3 Mar. 2014. The New Republic. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

Johnston, Angus. “Essay on Why a Professor Is Adding a Trigger Warning to His Syllabus @insidehighered.” 29 May 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

Marshall, Kelli. “Trigger Warnings, Quentin Tarantino, and the College Classroom.” Vitae, the online career hub for higher ed. 7 March 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

Medina, Jennifer. “Warning: The Literary Canon Could Make Students Squirm.” The New York Times 17 May 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

Rudnick, Paul. “Extreme Trigger Warnings.” The New Yorker. N.p., 18 Aug. 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

Shaw-Thornburg, Angela. “This Is a Trigger Warning.” The Chronicle of Higher Education 16 June 2014. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

Smith, Geoff. “Trigger Warnings: The Latest Threat to Academic Freedom.” The Globe and Mail. 4 April 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.

Smith, Kathleen. “Warning: This Course May Cause Emotional Distress.” American Psychological Association. 45.7 July/August (2014): 58. Web. 31 Oct. 2014.

Zimmerman, Jonathan. “My Syllabus, With Trigger Warnings.” The Chronicle of Higher Education Blogs: The Conversation. N.p., 20 May 2014. Web. 29 Aug. 2014.


[1] Trigger warnings or content disclaimers are disclaimers posted in a syllabus and/or provided prior to a specific class about content that will cover sensitive material that could trigger anxiety and/or posttraumatic stress. Content that often falls under this rubric includes sexual violence (rape, sexual abuse), mental illness (suicide, eating disorders, self-harming), and/or depictions of violent crime or violent situations (torture, war). Broader definitions and recommendations, such as one in a draft by Oberlin College, ask professors to “be aware of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, and other issues of privilege and oppression” and remove or make such readings optional whenever possible.


[2] Please see the selected bibliography above for examples of the debate in higher education.

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